14 August 2006

Family frames

Many of my readers are probably familiar with the ideas in George Lakoff's book Moral Politics. Lakoff suggests that there are two models of the family, the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent. Each of us carries both models in our minds, and frames politics in terms of these models, using the metaphor that the nation is like a family. Red America sees us as a family that needs a government that acts like a Strict Father, while Blue America thinks in terms of a Nurturant Parent. It's a powerful way of thinking about American politics that has spread like wildfire among lefties like me trying to make sense of Red America's thinking. If you aren't familiar with it, I strongly recommend Lakoff's book, or at least his summary of its points, Metaphor, Morality, and Politics.

Doug Muder thinks that Lakoff a little off the mark in that that the two models of the family don't have a strong enough grounding in Americans' real family lives. Looking closely at James Ault's quasi-anthropological study Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, he suggests a different pair of models of the family, which he calls Inherited Obligation and Negotiated Commitment.

The key distinction in Ault’s account is not strictness vs. nurturance, but the Given vs. the Chosen. What, in other words, is the source of your responsibilities to other people? Are you born with obligations? Or do you choose to make commitments?
It's a powerful analysis, to my mind less a shift from Lakoff's model than an expansion of it. I'd say that the Strict Father is Red America's metaphor for the government, while Inherited Obligation is a metaphor for society as a whole, beyond just government. Likewise the Nurturant Parent is Blue America's image of government, Negotiated Commitment our image of society.

Particularly interesting to me is that Muder hints at the significance of the contemporary economic order in undermining the viability of richly networked communities of the Inherited Obligation model. He suggests that Red State cultural politics (and politics politics) are symptoms of the effort that Inherited Obligation families are making to defend themselves against these fragmentary forces.

fundamentalism is not the natural state of the Inherited Obligation family. It is, rather, a kind of antibody that such families generate when they feel threatened ....
I think he's definitely on to an interesting paradox here. I see the entire American social and economic order as arrayed against families of elaborate interlocking relationships, whether those relationships follow the Obligation or Committment model. We demand a mobile labour force, enact government policies favouring suburban living arrangements, rigidly structure work and education. These and other forces make it hard for large family and community relationships to cohere, which has resulted in the paring down of the extended family to the nuclear family, with even that tiny unit often having a hard time holding together. Muder suggests that the Negotiated Commitment ethic is an adaptation to these circumstances, “streamlined in the wind tunnels of modern capitalism.”

One tragedy here is that Red America perceives the pressure on rich family and social interdependence as a breakdown in culture, while I think that much of Blue America understands pressure on families as a consequence of logistical and economic circumstances. So strangely it's Blue America that is more sympathetic to European-style social democratic policies that support family stability, while Red America allows themselves to be suckered by plutocrats who are actually creating the pressures that make it difficult for them to live the family lives they crave.


Polarity Lineage said...

nice post. thought provoking and informative. thanks.

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Interesting that the strictness comes only from the father, but either parent can be nurturing.

Anonymous said...

Are you commenting on strictness only coming from the father in the metaphorical model or in reality?